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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Even More Impressive DNA Storage

Posted by jlwile on February 4, 2013

DNA can store incredible amounts of information (montage of public domain images)

A few months ago, I wrote an article about a group of scientists who stored a book that contained words, illustrations, and Java script on DNA. It was an amazing technical achievement, and it demonstrated the incredible storage capabilities of this marvelous biomolecule. Well, another team of scientists has gone even further: they stored words, pictures, and audio on DNA!

Yes, the team encoded all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a photograph of the European Bioinformatics Institute (where the scientists work), and a 26-second audio clip from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.1 Also, in a very fitting symbolic gesture, they added the famous James Watson and Francis Crick paper that first revealed the structure of DNA.2

This new achievement was noteworthy for more than just the fact that the scientists stored audio on DNA. While the method that the previous team used to store the book worked well, it was difficult for instruments to retrieve the information from the DNA once it was stored there. Thus, the time it took to retrieve the book from DNA storage was fairly long. The scientists who produced this study used a different method to store the information, which made it much easier for instruments to read it back. As a result, not only was everything retrieved from DNA storage with 100% accuracy, the time it took to get it back was significantly reduced.

This is important, because if you really want to use DNA as a storage device for an enormous amount of information, you need to be able to read back that information quickly when you want to retrieve it. Of course, even the “simplest” single-celled organism can already read the information encoded in DNA with remarkable speed. Human science can’t come close to what these “simple” organisms can do, but this study does represent a small step in the right direction. As the authors state:

Theoretical analysis indicates that our DNA-based storage scheme could be scaled far beyond current global information volumes and offers a realistic technology for large-scale, long-term and infrequently accessed digital archiving.

Now, of course, the amount of data the scientists were able to store was impressive. It is equivalent to storing almost 500,000 CDs worth of information in a single gram of DNA. However, that’s only one of the advantages to using DNA as a way of storing information. The other is stability. Scientists are able to read DNA from fossils that are thousands of years old! If DNA can last that long in a fossil, it can last even longer in the pristine conditions of a data storage facility. This is why the authors say that their method can be used for long-term storage.

So DNA offers us a way to store an unparalleled amount of information for an amazingly long time. Of course, what else would you expect from an information storage system that was designed by God?


1. Nick Goldman, Paul Bertone, Siyuan Chen, Christophe Dessimoz, Emily M. LeProust, Botond Sipos, and Ewan Birney, “Towards practical, high-capacity, low-maintenance information storage in synthesized DNA,” Nature doi:10.1038/nature11875, 2013.
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2. Watson J.D. and Crick F.H.C, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171:737-738, 1953.
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10 Responses to “Even More Impressive DNA Storage”
  1. Jessica T. says:

    That’s so incredible! I’m just curious, though, what the timeframe for this whole process was. You said that the first storage method took a long time, and the second one a much shorter time, but what is that time (if that makes sense)? I don’t know very much about DNA or cell processes (I just started my cell biology college class this semester), so I’m unfamiliar with how long these kinds of processes would take.

    Thank you!

  2. jlwile says:

    Jessica, both processes took about two weeks to encode the information and then read it back. The older work used a simple encoding scheme, however, so it didn’t take long to encode the data, but it took a long time to read it out. This new work used a more complicated encoding scheme. That increased the time it took to encode the information, but the result could be read more quickly. Since data storage systems are typically read more often than they are written to, the reading time is more important than the encoding time.

  3. Evan says:

    This is truly amazing. Atheists are so proud of our technological achievements,and yet our storage methods aren’t even on the same level as that of the creator! To quote a song, our God is an awesome God!

  4. Jessica T. says:

    Thank you so much! That helped a lot. :)

  5. Jacob says:

    I am almost willing to bet that they’ll see that video, audio, pictures, and words can all be stored on DNA. This may also be a key to learning how to increase the memory storage on a computer to be similar to DNA. When scientists do that, they’ll be proud of themselves, but since it required a long time AND needed things that were already here, those men will never compare to our awesome God.

  6. jlwile says:

    So very true, Jacob!

  7. Bethany says:

    Hi Dr. Wile,
    Did you see this article?

    It looks like something you’d be interested in. It’s about new discoveries with spiders silk.

    Here’s an intriguing paragraph:
    “Another surprise came when Koski looked at supercontraction. In high humidity — when it rains or in the morning dew — spider silk absorbs water, causing unrestrained fibers to shrink by as much as half, likely due to molecular disorganization caused by the water. It is a curious response for something so key to a spider’s survivability and it has raised some debate in the scientific community as to why nature would have favored supercontraction.”

    Perhaps a topic for a blog? :)

  8. jlwile says:

    Thanks for letting me know about that study, Bethany. I had not seen it. I think the third possibility that is offered in the article is probably the most reasonable explanation for the fact that spider silk shrinks when it absorbs water:

    …supercontraction helps tighten the web when it gets wet, preventing the heavy water droplets from dragging the web down and preventing the spider from catching any prey.

    I’ll read the actual study and see if it is something I can blog about.

  9. Caden Brown says:

    just out of curiousity… what animal did they take the dnja from? obvioiusly, they didnt MAKE the dna; its far too complex. so who’s dna did they use? would other dna work better/worse? for example, if they used the dna from an ameoba (being relativly simple), would human dna store, say, 4,000,000 CD’s worth of information?

  10. jlwile says:

    Actually, Caden, they did make the DNA. We can assemble small stretches of DNA from its components. However, as the synthesized DNA gets longer, it becomes unstable and falls apart. Even the simplest cell can overcome this, but human science cannot. Thus, we can make small stretches of DNA, which are often referred to as “cassettes.” That’s what these researchers did. Rather than making a long stretch of DNA (they simply couldn’t), they made a lot of small cassettes of DNA. In those cassettes, they stored information as well as a marker to say which cassette it is (the first one, the second one, etc.). That way, when they read it back, they could put the cassettes in the proper order so as to get all the information back in its proper order.

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